Intrigue on Embassy Row: Former Libyan ‘People’s Bureau’ Goes on the Block

Intrigue on Embassy Row: Former Libyan ‘People’s Bureau’ Goes on the Block

WASHINGTON -- Blame the sign, or the sumptuous location in the heart of what the world's diplomatic capital calls "embassy row." The affair, held on a freezing afternoon in late January, certainly had draw. More than two dozen people, nearly all men and nearly all somewhat dodgy looking in that classic discrete-agent-of-a-foreign-government sort of way, gathered to bid on a hulking, neglected row-house boasting a fabulously curious sign: "BANK AUCTION, FORMER LIBIAN EMBASSY."
Any auction is bound to make the heart beat fast, regardless of whether the crowd features shady characters from various diplomatic outposts. But when they do drop in for the action, it's certain to be a hell of a lot more fun to watch. And they were there. "Yup, the heavyweights are starting to roll in now," observed one young Arab in a low voice. "The Iranians are here, Greeks, there go the Turks," he whispered, motioning toward two men in thick black overcoats standing in a shadow by the entrance.

Depending on the range of your imagination, the whole scenario was soaked with intrigue. A cloak-and-dagger crowd creaking through dimly lit empty rooms, whose dust-caked floors and cracked plaster walls exuded eerie memories of a time when U.S.-Libyan relations melted down. From the Cold War through the War on Terror, the Libyan presence in Washington has reflected the roller-coaster relations between the two countries.

Sometime in the late 60s -- apparently after a city landlord attempted to drive them from their previous digs across town -- the Libyans relocated to the embassy row building. Around the same time, in September 1969, Col. Moammar Qaddafi seized power and swiftly ordered the Washington embassy and all other Libyan diplomatic outposts be reestablished as "people's bureaus." He sought to create overseas fountains of his revolutionary ideas.

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